Mortenson, whose popular book has helped him to raise millions to support his efforts to build schools in central Asia, was one of America's most respected and best known philanthropists – until last month. That's when author Jon Krakauer appeared on "60 Minutes" to allege that Mortenson had lied in his book, misused the funds entrusted to him, and misrepresented the degree of the success of his school-building mission.
Mortenson has admitted that he "compressed" the timeline of some of the incidents in "Three Cups of Tea" but otherwise denies any claims of wrongdoing. His charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), has stated that in order to "address the recent media allegations" it is "gathering relevant facts from our field managers in Pakistan and Afghanistan to provide more comprehensive reporting." According to those close to Mortenson, pending heart surgery has prevented him from being able to speak out more fully in his own defense.
CAI board chairman Abdul Jabbar says that once Mortenson is "[a]rmed with a healthy heart" he will be ready to face the press and answer questions.
But even if Mortenson is not able to move forward at the moment, events are moving rapidly around him.
In federal court in Missoula last week, two Montana legislators – state Reps. Michele Reinhart and Jean Price – filed a claim against Mortenson, stating that they were duped into buying "Three Cups of Tea" and then giving to Mortenson's charity because they thought the stories in his book were true.
The legislators have suggested that millions of others who bought the book, heard Mortenson speak, and/or contributed to his charity could potentially became part of their suit.
Reinhart, Price, and others "purchased the book because of his heart-wrenching story which he said was true," says Alexander Blewett, attorney for Reinhart and Price. "If people had known all of this was fabricated, they would not have given the money."
The suit that Reinhart and Price have filed seeks to pursue charges against Mortenson and the CAI under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act because Mortenson used the US mail to solicit donations.
Mortenson and the CAI are also under investigation by Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.
"Three Cups of Tea" was published in 2006 and has garnered a wide and wildly enthusiastic audience. The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for three years after the release of its paperback edition. (The hardcover version of the book was not a big success and the paperback took off only after Mortenson persuaded his publishers to give the book a more hopeful subtitle.) It has since sold more than 4 million copies and been published in at least 39 countries. The book is required reading on many US college campuses and for all US service people bound for Afghanistan.
Mortenson, who also published a second book, "Stones into Schools," in 2009, draws huge crowds when he speaks about his work and has raised millions of dollars for his charity through both his books and his frequent speaking tours.
The suit being pursued by Reinhart and Price proposes that any monetary damages awarded be placed into a trust and directed to schoolchildren in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.